Barbosa Rises to Challenge

May 4, 2004

ATLANTA – Oftentimes, athletes more greatly appreciate success that follows a period of struggle, and that is true for Georgia Tech golfer Mike Barbosa.

Following a red-shirt year in 2001-02 and playing in just three events in 2002-03, the sophomore from St. Petersburg, Fla., has begun to contribute in a big way to the Yellow Jackets’ golf fortunes this spring.

Tech is ranked sixth in the nation in the latest Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, coming off a third-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. Barbosa and the Jackets are waiting for Monday (May 10), when they find out which one of the three NCAA regional tournaments they will be sent to the weekend of May 20-22. They must qualify through that event to play in the NCAA Championship, June 1-4, in Hot Springs, Va.

Tech, which has generally played a lineup of two juniors and two freshmen along with Barbosa this spring, has won one tournament this spring, the Taylor Made/Waikoloa Intercollegiate back in February, and has finished no lower than eighth in any of its six spring events.

Barbosa has been no small part of Tech’s success, averaging 72.96 strokes a round over eight events, including play in the fall. For the spring alone, however, his average is 71.80, counting toward Tech’s team score in all but one round.

He has come on strong in the last three events this spring, tying for 15th at the ACC Championship and the Atlanta Intercollegiate and tying for fourth at the Western Intercollegiate, all since late March. In those three events he has averaged 70.77 strokes and scored a collective four shots under par.

Barbosa’s recent success has come on the heels of two years of frustration. He played no tournaments as a freshman, when the Yellow Jackets won their most recent ACC title and finished second in the NCAA Championship. Last year, he played in only three tournaments, averaged 78 strokes per round and tied for 58th for his best finish.

Meanwhile, teammates Nick Thompson and Chan Wongluekiet, fellow Florida natives and friends since early teens with whom he came to Tech, became key contributors for the Yellow Jackets from the beginning. [Both made the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team announced on May 4.] Barbosa struggled to return to the form he enjoyed as a junior player.

Barbosa credits Troy Matteson, his former roommate who won the NCAA individual title during his red-shirt year, for keeping his confidence up and providing encouragement. He also is happy for the opportunity the year off gave him to mature on and off the course.

“When Mike was a junior player, he always gave away credit to people he worked with,” said head coach Bruce Heppler. “He never appreciated what he put into it, and he doesn’t see anything extraordinary in his effort. We saw a concerted effort to be good, and Mike saw that as being just Mike.

“So when he struggled, where does the confidence come from? He had nothing to fall back on. Now, he has finally gained an appreciation for what he puts into it. He has taken ownership of his golf, and acknowledged his work. His belief in what he can do has returned. Now he expects to succeed.”

Barbosa has now become an integral part of a solid nucleus along with Thompson, Wongluekiet and freshmen Roberto Castro and Kevin Larsen as the Yellow Jackets prepare for the post-season. Following is a conversation with Barbosa that took place following Spring Finals Week.

How much has your success and contributions to this team this year meant to you personally?

“It really means a lot to me. I really struggled my first two years, and at some points you don’t know if you’re ever going to be able to contribute on the scoreboard. It feels really good and very rewarding, and I hope I can continue to do that in the future.

“I’m relaxed a lot more. There still has to be that sense of urgency still, but I definitely have more confidence than I used to. I just try and keep my nose to the grindstone and keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

How difficult was the transition coming here, sitting out a year then playing in just a few events as a red-shirt freshman?

“The golf aspect was difficult, but everything else in my life, I felt, was pretty good. I learned a lot and matured a lot. The maturation I’ve gone through to get to this point, I would not trade for anything. The struggles I had helped mold me into the person I am now.

How much can you separate your struggles as a golfer and your experiences off the golf course as a student?

“That’s something I had to learn how to do. When I was in high school, when I didn’t play well, I’d be real hard on myself. Eventually, I learned how to balance my life, made some good friends, etc. You have to learn that or you’ll be miserable. I don’t want to be an unhappy guy if I shoot 78, and a happy guy if I shoot 69. I need to figure out how to be happy either way.”

What did you gain during that period of time, not only in terms of school, but your golf game and the way you managed your time and life? How is that benefitting you now?

“Being able to make some great friends, maturing, learning how to live in a big city, dealing with school, getting use to working out regularly. Everything about it has been great, learning how to better develop each facet.”

Why did you choose Georgia Tech?

“Really because it was the best combination of academics and golf. It seems like a lot of schools with top golf programs are not top-tier schools like Tech. That was a big factor. I wanted to go somewhere where I could develop my intellect as well as my golf. Along with that, there is the great lineage of players who have played here that is always good when you’re being recruited.

How many of those guys have you gotten to know?

“The alumni are really involved here, so I’ve had an opportunity to meet most of them. The guys who are around town here, I’ve gotten to meet all of them.”

You aren’t from a small town. What was the adjustment to living in a big city?

“The metropolitan area where I’m from is not small, but it’s still a lot different. There are a lot of cultural differences. Atlanta seems to be a lot more conservative and Southern. Learning those things has been a great experience. I love Atlanta. It’s a very interesting city, and I love all the things it has to offer. There are a lot of people everywhere.”

How old were you when you first picked up or swung a golf club, and how did that come about?

“I was 10 years old, and I just started playing with my Mom. She had played a long time ago and wanted to pick it up again. I just started playing with her. My Dad works, so she felt bad about leaving me at home when I was younger, so I just tagged along with her. I ended up really falling in love with it.”

Who were your early influences when you began to play the game?

“Everybody at the course (the Vinoy Resort and Golf Club), which was about two minutes from where I lived. All the people who worked there were always so nice to me when I was a little kid. There was a group of older men who treated me like their own when I was young. Not a lot of older people really wanted to play with a 10-year-old, but I would always play with them. My experience was always enjoyable.”

When did you decide you could play golf competitively? Do you remember the first time you broke 80?

“I remember the first time I broke 70, I was 14. I had a hole-in-one when I was 15; that was in a tournament. I always wanted to play competitively and play in as many tournaments as possible. When I was 15 of 16, I started playing more tournaments on a national level. I was like, alright, this is something I might like to do for a long time, once I got to that level and started beating some people I looked up to.”

Did you push yourself, or did you get a lot of encouragement from your parents?

“My parents are really hands-off. They don’t play golf, so I was kind of on my own. They were always extremely supportive and positive, but they always tried to push me in the direction of someone else for help (with golf). I’m really a self-motivated person. I don’t have any problems with that, and it’s not a chore to go practice. I’ve never been told to practice, I’ve just gone about my business.”

What is a typical practice like for you?

“I just practice for four hours, usually. I do those three times a week. I just work on certain aspects of my game that I need to work on. It’s pretty structured and repetitious. I don’t hit a lot of balls when I practice. I do a lot of drills.”

Who have been your most important golf teachers? Who do you rely on today with regards to your swing, managing your game, equipment, etc.?

“That’s where I struggled a little bit, because I became to reliant on a swing coach. When I was home over the summer, I talked to someone and explained that to him. We talked about my having a regimen where I didn’t have to be reliant on a teacher.

“There is a guy named Rich Abel who I take lessons from when I’m at home. But it’s not like a regular thing. I see him when I go home, but I don’t go home that much. We talk a lot on the phone, and he points me in the right direction. I have a lot of respect for him. We talk a lot about life things as well as golf.”

What, in your case, are the most important things you need to play well in a given round?

“The main thing is to be prepared. If I’ve done my work, then I’m not worried about the results at all. It’s like a math equation. I prepare a certain way, and that’s my input. Whatever I get is my output, and if my output is bad, then I didn’t prepare the right way. Not that I didn’t put in the time, but I’m able to put together a new mix of what I need to do that produces something good. That’s kind of the challenge and the enjoyment, and what is special about golf. There are so many ways to approach the game. Fortunately, for the time being, I’ve found something that works for me. I just keep putting that stuff in, and I get good results.”

What parts of the game are you best at? What needs the most work?

“Definitely my ball-striking and driving. I’m real accurate. And I’m a good iron player. I need to get a lot better inside 50 or 75 yards, and making some putts.”

Can you relate one or two of your most memorable accomplishments?

“This semester has been extremely rewarding, and it’s been one of the most rewarding times I’ve had in golf. I never really had to struggle much before. Everything came pretty easily, and I had success easily. Being able to play good rounds this semester has been special to me. I know I can overcome problems.”

What is the best thing about playing golf at Georgia Tech?

“The best memories I’ll have will be with Troy Matteson, who played here two years ago, and we roomed together my first two years. He was always so incredibly encouraging to me. There’s an unbelievable debt to him that I owe. The coaching staff is always really encouraging me. If I was feeling a little bit down, they always push me. But Troy spent an inordinate amount of time with me.

“The other memories will be just spending time with the guys on this team. It’s a small group, but we all get along so well.”

Did you compete against any of your Tech teammates on the junior circuit?

“Pretty much all of them, but moreso Chan (Wongluekiet), Nick (Thompson) and I. We all came in together, and we’re all from Florida. We’ve all competed against each other. I’ve known Chan since he was 10, and I’ve known Nick since he was 10 or 11. I’ve competed against those guys for the last 11 years.”

Who are your favorite professional players today? Who do you pull for on a given weekend?

“I’m a fair-weather fan, but I really enjoy watching whoever is playing well. I like watching anyone who is doing well, because it’s something we all want to experience. I love watching Tiger dominate. It’s interesting how he can be so far ahead of everyone, though he’s come back a little now.”

What do you like to do for fun and amusement besides golf?

“My free time, I really just spend with my girlfriend. We don’t get to spend a lot of time together. My schedule is pretty busy, and she’s busy, too. Otherwise, I spend time with the two guys on the baseball team who I’m really good friends with, Jeremy Slayden and Jordan Crews.

“Also, I really enjoy reading a lot. The first semester I read a lot. I read every golf publication. My nickname’s ‘Info,’ because I surf the web a lot and keep up-to-date on all the golf stuff. For some reason, I can remember all of it. I just know all sorts of weird facts about people, and the guys on the team give me a hard time about it.

What are your plans for the summer when the college season is over?

“I’m going to work our golf camp, and then I’m going to play tournaments, probably every other week. It’ll be great with no school. I’m just going to work my tail off and get as good as I can. I try not to set specific goals. I just want to max out my potential.”

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